AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kevin Harvick pulled onto pit road after his final race as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver, climbed out of his seat, grabbed a water from his 11-year-old son Keelan, slapped the boy on the back and posed a question.
“What now?” he said with a grin.
The 60-time NASCAR Cup Series winner put a coda on his 23-year career with a seventh place finish at Phoenix Raceway. The 47-year-old said at the beginning of the year that this would be his final season and he’ll move into the Fox Sports broadcast booth for 2024.
But for one more day on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Phoenix, he was a racecar driver. His No. 4 Ford Mustang started on the inside of the second row, complete with a “Harvick” emblazoned across the hood as part of the Busch Light logo.
It’s no surprise Harvick was competitive in Phoenix, which has always been one of his best tracks. He’s a nine-time winner and closed his career with 21 straight top 10s. He even took a brief lead in his final race, passing William Byron on lap 93 as the crowd roared from the stands.
The Bakersfield, California, native said it's always been a big deal to be good at a track near the West Coast.
“As you look at Phoenix, it’s always just a little extra special,” Harvick said. “Everyone knows how much it means to me to do good here. A lot of people have been here since the mid-'90s watching me race. So you don’t want to come here and suck.
“But to do that 21 times, win nine races, I’m so fortunate.”
Harvick raised a toast to his crew after the race and fielded congratulations from a handful of drivers, including teammate Chase Briscoe. After that, he sat on a cooler, soaking in the atmosphere that was a little celebratory but also a little bittersweet.
“It really hasn’t been about wins and losses, but you never want to flop around,” Harvick said. “To be able to lead laps in the last race, it tells you how competitive we still are.”
Three-time NASCAR champion and Hall of Famer Tony Stewart, the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, brought Harvick to the team in 2014. The partnership was productive immediately — Harvick won his only Cup championship in his first season and would go on to win 37 races over 10 years.
Stewart said on Saturday that he’d “lose a little sleep” thinking about Harvick’s last race.
“Kevin Harvick is probably the most well-rounded driver out there,” Stewart said. “Obviously, he’s a great racecar driver, but he knows how to build championship-winning teams, putting the right people in place, he understands the business side of it, he understands the marketing side of it.
“I would challenge anyone to find someone in the series as a driver that can do all those aspects as well as Kevin.”
Harvick’s departure is part of big changes for Stewart-Haas Racing heading into 2024. The team is also losing Aric Almirola, a 39-year-old who wants to scale back to a partial schedule after 12 full-time seasons and three wins in the Cup Series. Josh Berry will take over Harvick’s seat in 2024 while Almirola’s replacement hasn’t been named.
“Aric’s just calm, cool and collected all the time,” Stewart said. “But he’s a great family man, great husband, great father and great friend. I’m excited for both these guys, I’m excited for their next journey, but it is sad that 24 hours for now it’ll all be over.”
Harvick made his Cup Series debut the week after Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500. He was supposed to be eased into Cup competition by Richard Childress Racing and mentored by the seven-time champion Earnhardt, and instead was his emergency replacement.
Those early days weren’t easy. The then 25-year-old got into altercations with rivals, was combative with NASCAR officials and the media, and generally made the situation he’d inherited more difficult. Now he’s a former Cup champion whose 60 career victories, good for 10th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list.
Harvick is notoriously stoic, but even he became a little emotional thinking about more than two decades of excellence. When a reporter reminded him that his two children wished him luck over the radio before the race, Harvick couldn't totally contain the emotion.
“Yeah, well, that’s not normal, so they probably loved that and um ... so,” he said.
Then he turned and walked away. A few tears followed and he hugged his wife.
“For me, it's been a great ride,” Harvick said. “I don't have anything to complain about.”
AP Auto Racing writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this story.